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Ricardo Semler, Semco SA

Ricardo Semler
Ricardo Semler

One book: The God of Small Things. A very interesting book, there's no moral of the story.
One newspaper: The Wall Street Journal
One Web site: Google
One gadget: I guess it's to do with my midlife crisis. I just discovered a round razor to cut the hair from my ears and nose.
One plane ticket: East Africa


Founded: 1953
Headquarters: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Originally a shipbuilding supplier, Semco now produces more than 2,000 products including dishwashers and digital scanners, as well as diversifying into banking and environmental services and managing non-core business of multinationals such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour.

Annual turnover of $160 million, up from $4 million when Semler took charge, often growing at 30-40 percent a year.

Employs more than 3,000 people with an annual employee turnover of just one percent. Workers set their own salaries, share company profits and hire and fire their own managers.

They say: "Our philosophy is built on participation and involvement. Don't settle down. Give opinions, seek opportunities and advancement, always say what you think. Don't be just one more person in the company."

What are you reading?

"I just received a reader on Michel Foucault. I've been reading more of Foucault lately. There's much in common in management with his idea of looking at the essence of things and re-configuring them so that's been an interesting one.

I'm reading a lot of literature. I've been reading Sebald again -- Vertigo. He really defies gravity in literature. It's amazing how you can get caught in his books without really understanding what's going on."

Who's been your biggest influence?

Bill Gore from Goretex was a very strong influence because he was one of the first larger companies to experiment with freedom in the workplace.

What's your biggest mistake?

So many of them. I think probably the mistake of youth in the sense of speed -- "this has to be done right now." In a lot of what we did we put speed was of the essence, but we didn't really understand the concept of time

Is management an art or a science?

More an art. The scientific, technical aspect is basically secondary. The graduate schools have difficulties keeping up with the times because they consider it too much of a science.

What do you reach for on your desk when the fire alarm goes off?

I'd probably take my notebook computer because I think my whole life is there and I wouldn't have a single file left. Ten days ago my hard disk went out completely and it's brought me back to September which was the last time I made a copy of anything. It's interesting that not very much happened. I recommend that people lose their hard disks every couple of months.

Curriculum Vitae

  • Graduated from Harvard Business School aged 20 -- one of the school's youngest ever MBA recipients -- before replacing his father, Antonio, as CEO of Semler and Company in 1984 aged 24.
  • On first day, renamed company Semco, fired two-thirds of management and eliminated all secretarial positions. Dismantled managerial structure to eliminate "corporate oppression" and encourage core business values of employee participation, profit sharing and a free flow of information.
  • Named as a "Global Leader of Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum , twice as Brazil's 'Business Leader of the Year' and Latin American Businessman of the Year by the Wall Street Journal's America Economia magazine.
  • Author of "The Seven-Day Weekend" (2003) and "Maverick" (1993).
  • Founded the Lumiar School in Sao Paulo in 2003, where children aged 2-6, including Semler's own son, are taught in an unstructured environment without classrooms, homework or playtime, and learn only about what interests them.
  • He says: "The purpose of work is not to make money. The purpose of work is to make the workers, whether working stiffs or top executives, feel good about life."

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